Book Review: Two Books of Interest to Scholars of Freya
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(first printed in "Idunna" Magazine)
I recently went through my library in search of materials useful to folks doing research on the Goddess Freya. The two most relevant ones I was able to locate are Freyja – the Great Goddess of the North by Britt-Mari Näsström (Lund: Novapress, 1995) and Roles of the Northern Goddess by Hilda (Roderick) Ellis Davidson (New York and London: Routledge, 1998).
I found both books to be well-researched and full of fascinating and detailed information. However, the Heathen reader will have to get past some of the terminology used in order to benefit from these books. By this I specifically mean the repeated use of such terms as “the Great Goddess” and “the Northern Goddess.” (The italics are mine in both cases). I do not believe that their use is meant to be taken in the ultimately non-polytheistic sense in which Robert Graves or Wiccans might use them. Nevertheless, I found their use to be somewhat annoying.
Freyja – the Great Goddess of the North begins with a detailed listing of the sources for our knowledge of Norse religion. These include runes; theophoric place-names (those incorporating the name of a Deity); rock-carvings; the Poetic Edda; scaldic poetry; the works of Snorri Sturluson, author of the Prose Edda, Saxo Grammaticus, Germania by Tacitus (98 C.E.); Adam of Bremen (much of the Christian conversion of Scandinavia was carried out from the Diocese of Bremen, Germany), and the works of Ibn Fadlan (the film “The Thirteenth Warrior” was very loosely based on his writings).
The second chapter of this book discusses the Goddess Freya in the source material. In addition to some of the sources listed above, references to and information on Freya can also be found in the Saga literature and in later literature.
Näsström does not neglect previous research on Freya. She mentions that a great deal of older scholarship sees the cult of Freya (and Freyr too for that matter) as having migrated along trade routes, and that thus Freya’s origins can be traced to Near Eastern Fertility Goddesses such as Cybele, Isis, and Inanna. She also explores the influences of newer viewpoints in comparative mythology and of the structuralist method.
The author then digresses a bit into a discussion of Nerthus, a historically little-known Earth Goddess who is mentioned by Tacitus and whose name is cognate with that of Njordhr. Many contemporary Heathens see Nerthus as the mother of Freya and Freyr, and the cult of Nerthus, while totally absent from Viking-Age sources, has made a big comeback in contemporary Heathenism. Some of the bog bodies found in Scandinavian and North German fens and peat bogs may have been sacrifices to Nerthus and/or her daughter, Freya.
Further chapters of Freyja – the Great Goddess of the North include one dedicated to the Vanir in general, including, according to Näsström and some other scholars, Heimdallr, “The Great Goddesses of the North,” which discusses Freya’s functions and names and compares/contrasts her with other Indo-European Goddesses, a chapter dedicated to the Asynjur in general and Freya and Frigga in particular, “Fertility, Fight and Fate: Disir, Valkyries and Norns in Old Norse Mythology,” “Freyja and the Giants,” a chapter dedicated to discussion of Sacral Kingship (the Sacral King being in some way related to or connected to Freya in her role as a Vanir Goddess with Earth and fertility/prosperity aspects), and finally, survivals of Freya after the Christianization of Scandinavia.
For Näsström, Freya is “the Great Goddess of the North” in the sense that she is the best known of the Northern Goddesses, and has many and diverse aspects, roles and functions. Freya also is a very independent Goddess, acting independently of the domination of any of the Gods.
While the contemporary Heathen may not agree with all the ideas contained in this book, reading it certainly expanded my horizons. Unfortunately, the last I checked, Freyja – the Great Goddess of the North was obscenely expensive, so check your local university library or the Interlibrary Loan department of your public library.
The second book that I am reviewing for this article, Roles of the Northern Goddess, needs no other introduction to gain the attention of the serious modern Heathen than the fact that it is written by Dr. Hilda (Roderick) Ellis Davidson, one of the most renowned scholars of Germanic religion. Her first substantial work on the subject is The Road to Hel, which, I believe, was her doctoral dissertation. Published a couple of years after World War II, it is still a useful source of information on the many, complex and often contradictory viewpoints of the Afterlife held by the old-time Heathens. Amazingly, the last I heard, she is still alive, well and an active scholar!
This book is less Freya-centered than is Näsström’s book, but she still appears with great frequency. Ellis Davidson compares the Northern Goddesses with Goddesses from other, related cultures, especially Celtic ones. The book explores the Goddesses by functions, including “Mistress of the Animals,” “Mistress of the Grain,” “Mistress of Distaff and Loom,” “Mistress of the Household,” (these last two are more functions of Frigga), and “Mistress of Life and Death.”
In her concluding chapter, the author discusses the cults (organized worship) of the Northern Goddesses and the rituals associated with them. She stresses that Norse Goddesses (and for that matter Norse Gods) tend to be multi-functional, with considerable areas of overlap. The book as a whole is greatly enriched by sketches of ancient images of Goddesses and other relevant finds.
I highly recommend these two books to any student and worshipper of our Goddesses. The larger Pagan community often has the idea that Germanic Heathenism is mostly male-oriented. Unfortunately, some Heathens seem practice just such a form of our religion! The scholarship contained in these books can be used to reconstruct the Lore and Mysteries of our Goddesses, which unfortunately have suffered even more from the ravages of time and religious hostility than have those of our Gods. As Snorri himself put it, the Goddesses are no less holy and no less powerful than the Gods. May they continue to claim their rightful due in Heathendom!
last modified 08/11/2004